Terry Riley, a New Look at a Major Minimalist, 1990

11873375_10206242718959982_5843434003561755307_na New Look at a Major Minimalist
by K. Robert Schwarz
Published: May 6, 1990, NY Times

During the heady days of psychedelia and flower power in the 1960’s, Terry Riley suddenly found himself leading the life of a famous composer. His ”In C” (1964) garnered Minimalism its first public acclaim. And his ”Rainbow in Curved Air” (1968), with its brightly-colored electric keyboard arpeggios and wide-eyed hippie sentiments, attained genuine crossover status, linking classically oriented new music and progressive rock into a promising new synthesis.

But in the 1970’s, Mr. Riley dropped almost entirely from view. While his Minimalist colleagues Steve Reich and Philip Glass achieved international fame, Mr. Riley ceased notated composition altogether. So complete was his disappearance that in the early 1980’s, when the Kronos Quartet finally coaxed him back toward musical notation, many listeners were shocked to discover that his new quartets sounded nothing like ”In C.” Could these pieces really be by the same composer?

The answer to that question will become obvious this week, when New Yorkers will have the opportunity to hear music spanning Mr. Riley’s entire compositional career. On Friday, at the RAPP Arts Center, 220 East Fourth Street, in Manhattan’s East Village, Mr. Riley’s new ensemble, Khayal, will make its debut as part of the Bang on a Can Festival. During the second of the evening’s two sets, the Kronos Quartet will jam with Khayal, offering an impromptu version of ”In C.” And on Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, the Kronos Quartet will present the New York premiere of Mr. Riley’s mammoth string quartet, ”Salome Dances for Peace.”

All in all, it is not a bad week for the 55-year-old composer, who has long enjoyed cult status as one of Minimalism’s founding fathers. Yet in the past Mr. Riley has been in the unenviable position of finding himself inextricably linked with a single, youthful work, ”In C”; none of his subsequent compositions have had quite the same impact. It is not hard to understand why. ”In C,” with its unrelenting pulse, clear tonal center, repeated melodic patterns and communally organized modular form, came as a breath of fresh air to an avant-garde that was suffocating under the weight of ultrarational, atonal Serialism. Nothing that has happened since in American Minimalism – not the music of Mr. Reichor Mr. Glass or John Adams – would have taken the same course if not for ”In C,” a fact that all thosecomposers readily admit.

But Mr. Riley was never interested in exploring the abstract, systematic musical processes that came to fascinate Mr. Reich and Mr. Glass. Considering his background in jazz, it is perhaps not surprising that by the 1970’s he had stopped notating his compositions. During a recent telephone interview from his remote northern California ranch, he said that that decision occurred partly because ”at the time there weren’t enough new music groups that were really dedicated to learning the music well.” But one also suspects that it occurred primarily because Mr. Riley’s heart lay with improvisation, a process he could work out much more easily as a solo keyboard performer than as an ensemble composer.

”The major difference between me and Reich and Glass was that they weren’t improvising musicians; they were writing everything out,” Mr. Riley said. ”Since I was really looking for ideas that would emerge during performance, I had to take the route of not writing things down, because otherwise I’d have to follow my own road map. And I wanted to be as spontaneous as possible.”

Another crucial factor, one that also worked to drive Mr. Riley away from formal composition, was the study of non-Western music. In 1970, he traveled to India to study with the vocalist Pandit Pran Nath (who also taught that other pioneering Minimalist, La Monte Young). When Mr. Riley returned, he began ”setting aside a large amount of time for my studies in North Indian classical music, which I felt needed to have six to eight hours a day of my attention and practice.”

In fact, it is possible that if Mr. Riley had not met the Kronos Quartet in 1978 – when they were all teaching at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., – he might never have returned to notated composition. David Harrington, the Kronos’sfirst violinist, immediately attempted to convince Mr. Riley to write a string quartet. ”But,” said Mr. Riley, ”it took me a while to change gears from being a solo performer who composed music just for myself, to trying to write everything down. At first I tried to make improvisation charts, but that wasn’t the way to work with the Kronos; they preferred to have everything written out – at least all the notes.”

Mr. Harrington recalls being startled when the Kronos Quartet first began rehearsing Mr. Riley’s ”Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” (1981). ”It consisted of little slips of paper, not like any piece I’d seen before. Right there in his studio we began to put these little fragments together, to assemble them into an order.”

Instead of feeling stifled by the notational process, Mr. Riley felt liberated. And he became obsessed with the string-quartet medium, one which offers the Western composer opportunities to inflect pitch in ways more commonly associated with non-Western music. By 1984, when he completed ”Cadenza on the Night Plain,” he had turned his back on the Minimalism of ”In C,” instead exploring sonic realms stretching from the long-breathed lyricism of North India to the spiky, fragmented development of Bartok.

Still, Mr. Riley’s compositional process is anything but conventional. Both ”Salome Dances for Peace” (1986) and ”Cadenza on the Night Plain” were really collaborations between the composer and the members of the Kronos Quartet. ”When I write a score for them,” Mr. Riley said, ”it’s an unedited score. I put in just a minimal amount of dynamics and phrasing marks. It’s essentially a score like Vivaldi would have done. So when we go to rehearsal, we spend a lot of time trying out different ideas in order to shape the music, to form it.” The relationship that results is one about which Mr. Riley feels strongly. ”At the end of the process, it makes the performers actually own the music. That to me is the best way for composers and musicians to interact.”

The climax of this interaction has been ”Salome Dances for Peace” (recently released on an Elektra/Nonesuch recording, 9 79217-2). ”It took Terry two years to write,” said Mr. Harrington, ”but it took us three years to learn to play. It began to evolve in performance, through trial and error, by our saying to each other, ‘Let’s try it this way tonight.’ Finally, we got to the point you hear on the recording.”

Originally conceived as a ballet in which Salome, reincarnated 2,000 years after her run-in with John the Baptist, would use her ”alluring powers to actually create peace in the world,” as Mr. Riley puts it in the liner notes, ”Salome Dances for Peace” grew into a loosely programmatic string quartet based largely on native American mythology. But if the mythic basis of ”Salome Dances for Peace” is cross-cultural, its music is even more so. During its two hours, the quartet mingles Asian modes, static drones, Arabic melodic arabesques and nontempered tunings – with dissonant Bartokian counterpoint, bluesy inflections, jazzy syncopations and Minimalist repetition.

And it succeeds in speaking this multitude of musical tongues without ever slipping into mere pastiche. According to the composer, such multicultural evocations arise in an entirely natural way. ”It’s not something I attempt to do. I guess because I’ve listened to a lot of music from all over the world for 30 years, these things just seem to come through.”

Mr. Harrington has an even simpler explanation: ”All the kinds of music Terry loves are in that piece.”

Despite the ease with which ”Salome” explores the process of notated composition – and despite a Carnegie Hall commission for an orchestral work, to have its premiere there next February by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin – Mr. Riley has no intention of turning his back on improvisation. His new nine-member ensemble, Khayal – drawing its name from the Urdu word for imagination – consists of singers, keyboards, winds, bass, percussion and a variety of ethnic instruments. And though the core of Khayal’s songs are composed, the working-out of those songs depends on group improvisation.

”I’ve arranged things for the group, but they’re more like head arrangement in a jazz chart for a big band. We’ll come into sections where there’s an arrangement to pull us all together, and then from there it goes into improvisation.”

If this weekend’s juxtaposition of ”In C,” ”Salome Dances for Peace” and Khayal is any indication, Mr. Riley has finally discovered that elusive inner balance between his wide-ranging musical interests -notated composition and improvisation, Western and non-Western traditions, classical and popular sources. It’s a balance that has taken him nearly three decades to craft. But, considering his unexpected rebirth as a creative force in American music, it seems to have been worth the wait. ”These days, you always have the sense that there’s time around Terry,” said Mr. Harrington with a trace of awe. ”There’s time to be kind, time to be human, time to let the music find its particular place.”

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